The USDA recently released their annual report on the presence of pesticide residue in food commodities, and the study produced a harvest of mixed results, so to speak. The report was quick to point out that the overwhelming majority (99.7%) of foods were at or below the tolerance levels established by the Environmental Protection Agency, that is, if a pesticide had a set limit. But alarming data were also disclosed, such as the presence of 48 different pesticides in 98% of apples tested. Contaminants were also found in 97% of grapes and 96% of strawberries. Among vegetables, over 90% of cilantro, potatoes and spinach also had detectable pesticides. Additionally, 44% of cilantro samples had 33 unapproved pesticides detected. Considering that these results were for foods that had already been washed, it’s clear that pesticides are a standard part of even a healthy American diet.
Now the report by the Pesticide Data Program examined a variety of other fruits and vegetables, such as asparagus, cucumbers, green onions, lettuce, organs, pears, sweet corn and sweet potatoes as well as processed foods like garbanzo beans, kidney beans, pinto beans and tomato paste. Additionally, other foods tested include rice, beef, and catfish, as measures of pesticide movement up the food chain, as well as groundwater and drinking water, to gauge environmental contamination and indirect pesticide consumption in humans. Again these results fell within EPA limits. In the “What Consumers Should Know” section of the summary, the investigators send the message that fruits and vegetables should always be washed and consumers should continue to each these foods daily as part of a healthy diet.
Government agencies, the agricultural industry as a whole and farmer organizations say pesticide use is necessary to keep food costs low and yields high. Their stance is that pesticides are safe to use and that the limits set by the EPA establish that pesticide exposure is alright, as long as it is below the set limits.
So what is the big deal about pesticides being in common foods?
Ask the Environmental Working Group. After the report was released, they promoted apples from number 4 to the top of their “Dirty Dozen” list of produce with pesticides ( the bottom of the list shows the “Clean 15”). And that move has ticked off the Produce Marketing Association. After all, the U.S. apple industry produced 9.71 billion pounds in 2009 and is valued at $2.2 billion, which is third behind grapes and oranges. For apples to be blacklisted in such a list can be seen as fearmongering and ultimately threatens the bottom line. So it is only natural that a letter was sent to the U.S. Agriculture Secretary from 18 trade associations urging the inclusion of statements in this year’s report to curtail misinterpretation of the data by its public release. Not surprisingly, a counter letter was sent by public health experts to thwart these efforts to “spin or censor” the data from this report.
But the raw data speaks for itself. For instance, while the detection of 48 pesticides in apples seems a lot, cucumbers had the highest at 69 while sweet corn had the lowest at only 1 pesticide. Even if all 69 of those pesticides in cucumbers are at “acceptable” limits, the fact is they are still there and that isn’t something that can be explained away by labeling them as safe. Safety limits by the EPA have some hidden assumptions in them, such as the number of cucumbers the average American is eating. If you aren’t a fan of the famously-popular-in-Britain cucumber sandwiches, then you have nothing to worry about, but what if you are a huge pickle fan? Suddenly those numbers may be a bit more concerning.
In step with all of this banter, the Organic Trade Association issued their own press release after the report’s release offering a simple solution: buy organic.
The press release points out that organic production must meet much stricter regulations in production, inspection and certification so much so that organic is a “gold standard” for those concerned about pesticide consumption. Fortunately, the data from the USDA backs up the claim. The report shows that even in organic lettuce, a few pesticides were detected, but they were either those pesticides that are allowed in organic farming or environmental contaminants, which are difficult to curtail. These kind of findings are spurring the organic industry, in part, as evidenced by the almost 12 percent growth in 2010 as sales roll in at $10.6 billion.
Clearly, pesticide use isn’t going away. As the world faces greater population growth, climate change, and redistribution of wealth causing increases in poverty, pesticides will continue to be an important part of global food production. This report, and all the response to it, underscores the complexity of food in modern society. At the same time, pesticide exposure has been linked to decreases in prenatal IQ, a variety of cancer, and other human and environmental risks. Another thorny solution to reducing pesticides is to increase the adoption of genetically modified foods, an issue that is experiencing its own battles.
For consumers, the reality is eating fruits and vegetables is necessary for healthy living, both for today and as the cheapest preventive medicine around. Pesticide exposure can be decreased through thorough washing of foods before consumption, avoiding excessive eating of those at the top of the Dirty Dozen list, and consuming organic, when available. While it would be ideal to have produce that was completely healthy in all ways, it is just not a possibility in today’s society. By all accounts, the average consumer will have to be even more attentive to all the contaminants spicing up the foods that they love.
Henry David Thoreau once wrote, “Surely the apple is the noblest of fruits.” Perhaps that was once true, but today it appears that pesticides are marring apples’ street cred.